Philately: From The Queen Of Hobbies To A Struggle For Survival

Abhishek Kabra & Madhusmita Bordoloi

An old art piece hung in the wall of my small home has a special significance for my grandmother. The significance is not only because she has seen it being made, but also, she knows that she is one of last custodians holding interest in that old withered art made of a few small stamps, pasted and carved in the shape of a pot. This has always been one of the grave peculiarities among the last custodians of an art, a history, an interest or a participation. Ask a last generation freedom fighter who is alive and she or he will describe you in minutest of the details their involvement in the Indian freedom struggle. In short, they are proud of the time their life was in best of the forms and at the same time are worried about lack of documentation, preservation or even remembrance. Philately is one such art- the queen of all hobbies. Detaching the stamps delicately from the postal envelops, rinsing and drying them before using paper hinges to place them in albums, exchanging them with others philatelists to enlarge the collection - all these have a charm, maybe an old school charm, for which the present world seems to have lesser time, being busy with their techno savvy lives.

Philately in short, is the collection and study of postage stamps. By 1860s, stamp collecting had become a popular hobby after World’s first postage stamp, ‘Penny Black’ (with portrait of Queen Victoria) was issued on 6th May 1840, in London. First Postage Stamp of Independent India was issued on 21st November 1947 depicting the Indian National Flag. Two other stamps were issued on 15th December 1947, release of which was notified by Postal Notice No. 43 dated 19th November 1947.

Stamps, since inception with the travel of time have been carrying history with them with special mentions on every significant events of the times. From commemorating the first year of Indian Independence to the issues of stamps siting achievements of ICAR, Indian Postage Stamps have always been the harbinger of the time train publishing a stamp depicting significance of the stations, the train passes through. Stamps have portrayed pictures of archaeological sites, development of science and technology, centenaries of Telegraph or the first Indian postage stamps, traditional elements like Japi or Angami tribal cap or the Himachali cap, different fields like sports, politics, culture or science and so on. Thus, philately in this regard is unfurling the history and making history stamped for life.

According to Indian Philatelists Forum, ‘there is a magic in postage stamps’! You can travel around the world without leaving your seat. Hobby of stamp collecting broadens one’s horizon, brings people together, and widens the knowledge of geography, history, science and technology. Among the children, this hobby arouses curiosity, stirs imagination, develop tendency to analyse subjects, helps to cultivate the good habit of patience and fosters friendship. Now the stamp collecting has not remained as a hobby but has blossomed full fledge science of Philately. There are various branches in this field. Philatelists not only collects stamps but they also collect postal stationery, flight covers, exhibition covers, meter franking, exhibition covers, revenue and court fee stamps, stamp papers and postal history. Thematic collection has now become boon in philately. It is a subject wise collection (e.g. Butterfly, Flowers, Dentistry, Birds, Animals, Ships, Fishes, Sports, Aircrafts, Milk, etc.) For developing your theme/topic, you have to study catalogues, reference books on that particular subject. When a theme is properly researched, philatelically as well as academically, the collector will have a vast amount of background information. So, the thematic collection makes you master of that particular subject. That is why this hobby is a knowledge-based hobby or in other words- ‘EDUTAINMENT’ (Entertainment with Education).

To make the youth aware of the hobby of philately, the Indian Philatelic Museum has been organising stamp exhibitions on various themes. India had many philatelic societies and forums in the past, though the numbers are reduced now. Before the Philatelic Society of India was formed in the year 1897, India had no pan-Indian Philatelic groups but there did exist significant state groups like the philatelic Society of Bengal, the Bombay Philatelic Society and so on.

Just like any other admirer, who breathes in the essence of the art and analyses every single change the art undergoes, Philatelists finds joy in discovering the errors in a stamp. To mention one of those, the first day cover to commemorate Dandi March in 1980 had an illustration of Gandhiji wearing mismatched footwear. And the philatelists then become keener to acquire those stamps with errors in their collection, thereby making it more valuable. Of the first stamps produced in India, it is believed that there were almost thirty stamps with inverted head of Queen Victoria and the enthusiastic philatelists were keen on acquiring them.

There is a different kind of feeling associated with it. To put it in a nutshell, people today hardly seem to care about something trivial like stamps. But those who care, does this with a full-fledged curiosity and desire. They are curious about more and more countries and cultures to explore and they desire ever more of these little stamps to add on to their miniature legacy. The greater reason behind this endangered art is the lack of writing letters which has become a near-obsolete art now. With the burgeoning popularity of the internet forced philately, the hobby of collecting stamps and studying postal history, took a back seat, a few years ago.

However, promoting competitive philately and making the school children aware of this art may breathe life into this lost art. Adding this as a vocational course too can make this hobby survive and become the stamp of passion for modern day philatelists who, today, are either the last custodians of the art or one-millionth of the population trying to imbibe this lost art as their hobby. Till then the future of this lost art can be expressed in Awtar Singh Banga’s poetic words, ‘Maana ki antim saase hai, par jeevan ki aas ab bhi baaki hai’ - I might be breathing my last, but the will to live still remains.

Abhishek Kabra And Madhusmita Bordoloi, Department of Mass Communication And Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam

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Oct 17, 2020

Abhishek Kabra

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